BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year

Every year, British Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology get together to review the best bird books to appear during the previous 12 months. All books reviewed in British Birds, in BTO News and on the BTO website are eligible for the award.

There are no formal judging criteria – instead, the judges are simply looking for books of special merit that will be appreciated widely by British Birds readers and BTO members. Details of the most recent winner can be found below.

The BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year 2014

Another 83 books were eligible for our consideration this year. We wondered last year (Brit. Birds 107: 102-104) whether the interaction between birds and humans might become a continuing theme among our chosen books and, to some extent, it has. Three of the books in this year’s top six deal either with bird populations in general or with one family in particular, but two books pay homage to the remarkable influence that a single human, Charles Darwin, has had on our understanding of the world of birds, while the remaining book is arguably as much about humans as it is about birds (and certainly about the interactions between the two). We have pleasure in announcing the results.

207225Winner: Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland By Dawn Balmer, Simon Gillings, Brian Caffrey, Bob Swann, Iain Downie and Rob Fuller; BTO Books, 2013 Reviewed in BB by Mark Holling (Brit. Birds 107: 105-106)

It is just about a human generation since the last winter bird atlas, though a cycle of 20 years between breeding bird atlases seems more or less established. To combine the two, compare the results with previous atlases and publish in two years is a colossal achievement and a testament to the power of the technology that has become available to process the increasing volumes of data that can be gathered from growing numbers of observers. The results are astonishing and we shall see their legacy over the years as this treasure trove of data is mined and analysed.

2nd: Ten Thousand Birds: ornithology since Darwin By Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie; Princeton University Press, 2014 Reviewed in BB by Alan Knox (Brit. Birds 107: 373-374)

Ornithology did, of course, start before Darwin and the senior author has indeed written about that (and his efforts have appeared in these rankings before). Post Darwin, however, all manner of questions could be investigated from a different perspective and this review provides an excellent overview of where scientific ornithology is now.

3rd: Bird Populations By Ian Newton; Collins (New Naturalist), 2013 Reviewed in BB by Rob Robinson (Brit. Birds 107: 236-237)

Who can fail to be interested in what is happening to our birds and why? Our winner this year shows us what has happened in recent decades. In this book, Ian Newton, who has written extensively on this subject, brings together our best and most up-to-date understanding of why. The author’s characteristic lucidity makes complex ecological interactions understandable to everyone interested.

4th: Owls By Mike Toms; Collins (New Naturalist), 2014 Reviewed in BB by Ian Carter (Brit. Birds 107: 239)

At long last, some have said! It is hard to believe that there has not been a New Naturalist overview of this family in the 70 years of the series. That said, this is a worthy addition – detailed, up to date and authoritative, though eminently readable. A must for anyone interested in a family that is enduringly popular, if not the most accessible either for casual observation or, indeed, for serious study.

5th: Forty Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Finches on Daphne Major Island By Peter R. Grant and B. Rosemary Grant; Princeton University Press, 2014 Reviewed in BB by David Parkin (Brit. Birds 107: 708-709)

An account of evolution by natural selection demonstrably in action, fittingly among the eponymous finches of evolution’s most famous proponent. The effort and devotion involved, 40 years on a small island with birds individually known, is simply breathtaking. Not everyone will find this book easy to read, but the lessons are very important.

6th: A Message from Martha By Mark Avery Reviewed in BB by Mike Everett (Brit. Birds 107: 568)

Extinctions are rarely easy to date but the last Passenger Pigeon, the Martha of the title, died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1st September 1914. That hers had once been the most common wild bird species on earth and that the extinction was caused by our species adds particular poignancy. Indeed, this sad anniversary has resulted in several books. In this one, Mark Avery investigates with the eye of both scientist and conservationist and, as the title suggests, draws lessons for the future.

It is customary for us to draw attention to books that, while not making the listed six, have in some way piqued our interest. Art books often do, and Robert Gillmor’s work always repays study: Robert Gillmor’s Norfolk Bird Sketches (By Robert Gillmor; Red Hare Publishing, 2014 – see Brit. Birds 107: 780).

Two identification guides stood out for us: The Helm Guide to Bird Identification: an in-depth look at confusion species (By Keith Vinicombe, Alan Harris and Laurel Tucker; Bloomsbury, 2014 – see Brit. Birds 107: 374-375) brings up to date the much-loved Macmillan guide, first published as long ago as 1989, while the recently established Crossley format, based on photo montages, crossed the Atlantic with The Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland (By Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens; Princeton University Press, 2013 – see Brit. Birds 107: 54).

For many years it has become almost a tradition to admire another volume of the Handbook of the Birds of the World. There is a sense in which such a work will always be in progress, especially in these digital days, and we can already see the first derivative in the heavyweight HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Volume 1. Non-Passeriformes (by Josep del Hoyo, Nigel J. Collar, David A. Christie, Andrew Elliott and Lincoln D. C. Fishpool; Lynx Edicions, 2014 – see Brit. Birds 107: 706-707). In a world in which taxonomy is as fluid and potentially controversial as it is now, no doubt more editions will be forthcoming in future. Wide-ranging in a different sense is The World of Birds (by Jonathan Elphick; Natural History Museum, 2014 – see Brit. Birds 107: 711-712). Lavishly illustrated, it is a work of general reference, firstly providing answers to almost any ornithological question the reader might ask and secondly surveying all existing families of birds.

Finally, Shrewdunnit: the nature files (by Conor Jameson; Pelagic Publishing, 2014 – see Brit. Birds 107: 492), is a quirky collection of essays about the author’s numerous and varied interactions with wildlife, but a book in the top six of at least one judge.

The announcement of a national atlas has in the past often inspired the creation of local and regional atlases, and in some cases, updated avifaunas. Our current winner is no exception. Several county atlases have already appeared, but many more are still to come (see BTO News 309: 12-14). Several were eligible this year as having been reviewed; we felt, however, that it does not do justice to the genre if only those eligible are considered in any given year and have to take their chances against books from many other fields. We have accordingly decided to defer a more systematic consideration of all such atlases and avifaunas until a majority of them have been published, at which point we propose to make an award specifically for this group.

Acknowledgments We are grateful to the BTO for making facilities available for judging at Swanwick, and especially to Carole Showell for sourcing books from the Chris Mead Library at Thetford.

Peter Wilkinson, Ian Carter, Peter Hearn, John Marchant, Robin Prytherch and Roger Riddington, c/o BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PU